I started my doctoral research on criticism in theatre and performance approximately three years ago; at the time, the blogosphere was just beginning to gain visibility as a form of critical and cultural output. Discussions on questions of legitimation between critical outputs in newspapers , those authored by experts, and those by bloggers, were still thriving throughout the digital sphere and beyond. The variables of criticism were being slowly questioned: notions of expertise, of style, of function and necessity, form and approach. Whether in the context of theatre makers and academics writing about their own work and practice, from Chris Goode to Andy Field, Jill Dolan to David Williams, or in the work of bloggers like Andrew Haydon and Catherine Love, criticism was being interfered with and intervened within, despite a highly institutionalised practice.
The tenets of this practice, rooted in the work of William Hazlitt and later, Kenneth Tynan and Irving Wardle, held true to the understanding that criticism served not only as a cultural barometer, but as a practice of expertise and value judgment. Contained mostly within the remits of mainstream press, outside of key publications like City Limits and later, Total Theatre, criticism was shaped publically by the demands of the press as an institution of discourse, and the demands of a particular theatrical elite. The code of theatre criticism could be found in the mission statement of the International Association of Theatre Critics, which valued, perhaps given this historical grounding, a particular critical etiquette. Distance emerged as a key variable of theatre criticism; the distance of the expert, seeking to explicate and document the practices of the mainstream British stage. Whilst this in itself is problematic, I emphasize it here not as a judgment of this history, but as a particular set of roots in the literary and the journalistic.
As art critic Paul De Man has argued, criticism has always had a tense and problematic relationship with crisis; so to say that questions of expertise, of objectivity, representation, access, form and visibility are somehow particular to the last twenty or so years, particularly in theatre, is a mis-representation. However the sheer diversity and breadth of work, from live art and circus through to theatre and performance, from the immersive to the participatory, have come to challenge the instituonalised practice of criticism, alongside wider and growing economic, cultural and political pressures. This is, I argue, an incredibly exciting opportunity for criticism, and I’ll tell you why.
Three years ago at Exeunt, we were just beginning to shape our thinking on digital publications and becoming part of a wider, and growing landscape of performance discourse. Over at Culturebot, the tenets of embedded criticism were being erected through both practice and long-form reflections. Projects such as Open-Dialogues started to shape the ways in which criticism might intervene differently in cultural practices, across visual arts and performance. In the context of theoretical work, performance and art writing were gaining visibility and status; from the problematisations of criticism by theorists such as Irit Rogoff and Gavin Butt, through the questions of spatiality and temporality in the work of Jane Rendell and Mieke Bal, theory constructed a wider narrative of theorisation of criticism in performance, drawing on the legacies of thinkers like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, to name but a few.
This theoretical and practical dynamism – from the sheer volume of intelligent, curious and informed young writers on theatre and performance through to projects such as Dialogue and Thompson’s Live that are championing collaboration and fuelling discussion in a range of interventions beyond the textual,blogs such as Postcards from the Gods and A Younger Theatre, to name but a few, writing and mentorship projects from festivals such as Spill and Fierce, public, interdisciplinary research projects such as Performance Matters, as well as the numerous writing and publishing projects curated and produced by The Live Art Development Agency – has facilitated not only more engaged and diverse writing, but also more visibility and a sense of a professional community.
Recently, Dr Karen Fricker at Brock University brought together critics including Jill Dolan, Maddy Costa and Andy Horwitz to discuss the range of shifts within theatre criticism as part of a colloquim, with a particular emphasis on Canadian context. One of the panels, featuring Costa and Horwitz, addressed questions around embedded criticism, a form of criticism that seeks to engage with the theatrical process through artist-critic collaborations (you can read more on Andrew Haydon’s recent blog ).
Of course, one might argue that particularly within theatre practice, embeddedness holds both a legacy within academic processes as well as a wider context fuelled by postmodernism. As Gavin Butt argues, we can no longer speak of a cultural landscape where critics and artists are somehow divided; the cultural apparatus works all-together differently, prompting a set of processes and variables that inadvertently put the two in conversation. At the same time, theatre and performance studies have set a precedent for interventions and studies into rehearsal and making processes. Particularly in continental Europe, the in house dramaturg or critic serves a key institutional position for such an engagement too.
The difference is made by the visibility opened up in the wider cultural landscape by critics entering these rehearsal rooms, but engaging much more openly, and urgently, in conversations not only with artists, but also producers and facilitators. Embeddedness is also about interdisciplinarity, about an opening up of the rehearsal room and providing a different interrogation and understanding of process. It also offers the opportunity for critics and audiences to engage differently with theatre, and value process as much as the final piece.
Despite the fact that none of this is without its problems, both methodological and “ecological”, I think embeddedness has offered more than just a way of making visible the structures and opportunities for discourse and dialogue that have been opened up by infrastructural, cultural and political changes over the past twenty years; it has shown that criticism is not solely a practice that belongs to a particular institution of discourse.
This to me, is key, because it also opens up the opportunity for us to treat criticism as a practice in and of itself, and challenge its structures, its models of power, its cultural relationships and functions. It eliminates the problematics of one-dimensional thinking, where criticism can only fulfill one function, exist in one mode of practice and context, and serve only one cultural field. It might offer a more potent question on training and professional development, on access and authorship. Perhaps the critic means something different; after all, I can think of so many artistic practices within theatre and performance that have sought to engage critically, to enable and construct their own discourse and likewise, of writers and academics who have been engaging in these processes in their own particular contexts.
This opens up the possibility of tracing an all-together different history, of better understanding what discourse in relation to performance might be, and of treating it with a different set of taxonomies. For my part, it has shaped my research invariably towards an interest in investigating the very processes of criticism, the politics of judgment, and the ways in which collaboration and interrogation might be able to further the practice. I feel freer to consider what formal inflections might look like, and how criticism might open up processes of visibility, appearance and interrogation for art. I can displace binaries of academic and mainstream, theatre and live art more readily, and question the ways in which we now see and think about interpretation and judgment; and I can do that in the context of a much wider net of discourses, practices and models.